Iroh and Ozai
Caldera’s Grand Palace, January
“I will not marry the granddaughter of a traitor!” Ozai’s voice snaps across the space like a whip. Iroh watches his brother pace, a caged moose-lion whose fury is crackling off of him in waves. The temperature of the room rises in tandem with the younger man’s temper. Iroh hums out, letting the heat radiate away from him with a careful release of his breath.
“I am afraid you do not really have a choice, little brother,” he tells him evenly.
“There’s always a choice,” Ozai answers, biting the words from the air.
Iroh hums again, inclining his head in agreement. Though —
“That is true, but there are limited choices in this matter, Ozai. Going against father directly will result in punishment. Who knows how harsh it will be. Perhaps this time it will not be something that you can come back from,” Iroh warns. “You could run away on your own, banish yourself…But I don’t think that’s really something you want to do.”
He cannot imagine his little brother roughing it. Not like one sometimes must when surviving on their own. Ozai is proud and poised, a true courtier. Iroh can see him bringing about his own downfall through his pride alone, if left to his own devices.
“Or you can marry Lady Ursa. Did you get a good look at her portrait? Either the painter greatly flatters her, or she is one of the most beautiful women in the Fire Nation.”
“I don’t care if she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, she is the granddaughter of Avatar Roku! This is an insult and a slight! Father plays his games as though there are no repercussions for those of us on the receiving end! What on earth could he possibly hope to accomplish by marrying me to her?”
Iroh purses his lips, considering his brother’s argument.
“You are a powerful bender,” he suggests, “and Ursa’s grandfather was the Avatar. Ostensibly also a powerful bender. Perhaps he thinks to unite the two lines in order that any left over dissenters will be assuaged and encouraged to the right side of things by marrying the two of you to one another.”
“It is a heinous joke. One played on me because he wishes to remind me of how little he thinks of me!”
“I do not think that father thinks lowly of you, Ozai.”
“Then you are blind!”
Iroh presses his lips together in a thin line, breathing out a sigh. There is no reasoning with Ozai when he is like this. The older of the two brothers lifts his tea cup, pausing with the warmed rim against his bottom lip before he finally takes a sip of the sweet jasmine brew.
“So what do you propose you will do?”
Ozai stills completely. From prowling lion-moose to statue in a breath. “I will refuse to see her.” He says finally.
Iroh makes a sound in the back of his throat.
“That will not work.”
“Well I don’t hear you making any suggestions!”
“Ozai please. Sit down. Have some tea. Rest your feet.”
“You’re no help!” His brother throws his hands in the air, and goes back to pacing. Iroh gives in. It’s always been best to let these moods of Ozai’s play out. He’ll come to see reason in a day or so. Then he will be ready to meet his betrothed when she arrives in a month’s time.
“If you say so,” Iroh answers finally, taking another sip of his tea.
En route from Hira’a, February (one week before the New Year)
She tears her gaze from the passing landscape around them, returning her attention to her parents where they sit across from her in the dark carriage. It’s been raining buckets for two days, the monsoon season clinging to the country like a child to its mother’s breast.
Ursa’s mother is looking as though her stomach is rolling about like waves on the sea in much the same fashion as Ursa’s has done since the moment that she stepped foot out of her childhood home for the last time.
“Are you tired? We could stop for the rest of the day. There is a quaint little town not far from here which is supposed to have the best papaya in the region.”
Her mother has been stalling their journey as much as she can. It doesn’t take a genius to see it, yet her father seems just as content to drag the proceedings out for as long as possible. Ursa cannot say she is sorry for it. There are many things which excite her in her life, but the prospect of being married, no matter that she gladly does it for her family’s sake (it is what’s done, after all), is a daunting one. Especially when it truly is to a stranger.
Things like this are done many different ways amongst the noble elite, she knows, but HIra’a is a small province, with very few nobles, and those who do make marriages at her age are usually love matches and have known their brides or grooms their entire lives.
Ursa bites back a sigh, shrugging her shoulders briefly.
“I’m not tired, but if you think that the papaya is worth the stop,” she offers.
“Oh it is,” her father says, taking her attention away from the nervous twist of her mother’s hands in the skirts of her robes. Ursa smiles briefly at the greying head of their house hold.
“We should stop,” he continues on, “no harm will come in taking one more day on the road. We didn’t give them an exact date for our arrival.”
“They could not begrudge us extra time spent on the road, surely,” Ursa asks. “After all, it’s so rare that any of us ventures out of Hira’a and into the wider Fire Nation.”
No doubt the Fire Lord’s son had been surprised to find that descendents of Avatar Roku still live in the Fire Nation. Let alone that there is a girl old enough to be his bride.
“There are plenty of things that they could and will grudge us. And you. Do not let them fool you, Ursa. You are going to be on thin ice in the palace. You are only as privileged as the Fire Lord allows you to be. Do not forget it.”
“Oh please Rina, don’t scare the girl. It’s an honour that the Fire Lord wishes for our daughter to marry his son. That he wants to join our two houses. It’s a show of faith,” her father asserts. He doesn’t raise his voice, but no argument is brooked, of this both women are assured.
Ursa glances at her mother, letting her amber gaze linger on the older woman where she ducks her head and says nothing else. The mother who has taught her so much. She’s not a fool. She knows as well as Rina does that her footing will be shaky at best, in the beginning. That she will be on thin ice, as her mother says.
She will be a stranger with no allies, and those allies that she does make right away will be questionable. They will be the snakes wanting to climb into the nest.
Ursa chews her bottom lip briefly, the full swell of the flesh slipping between her teeth before she goes back to looking at the scenery passing them by. The sky is dark and steely over the tree line. She turns her attention down to her lap, picking at a piece of dry skin beside her thumbnail. She winces when the skin comes away, stinging.
Ursa and Ozai
Caldera’s Grand Palace, one day before the New Year celebration
The nobles have gathered. Every important person from every corner of the Fire Nation has arrived garbed in their finest, waving their scented fans about and wandering the covered walkways of the great expanse of the palace’s garden.
There is no humidity today. Her long, heavy, robes are more than comfortable in the far cooler climes of the capitol city, insulating her against the chill edge in the air. No wonder all of the Fire Nation’s official portraiture shows the Royal Family in such heavy, long, clothing. It’s cold enough up here to set her teeth to chattering.
As such, every ten feet or so there are lighted steel pits, the air above them shimmering with their heat, radiating out to warm cold fingers and exposed faces for those coming from the far Southern reaches of the Fire Nation.
Ursa notes that even some Earth Kingdom dignitaries are present, their green robes a striking contrast to the red which permeates the palace decor, beneath the heavily present gilded patterning that seems to cover nearly every surface near or far. The rails of the covered walk way wink cool gold lilies up at her, carved into the wood surface. Ursa’s steps scrape the wooden boards at her feet, the hem of her robe hissing in her wake.
No matter how humble their beginnings, her father and mother have made certain that she is the best dressed woman in the room. She figures it must have cost them a month’s wages from the tenants at least, to pay for the seamstress and the cloth.
She passes an austere looking gentleman, around her age. He’s richly dressed, she presumes, but his outfit is all black, plain. If it weren’t for the little coronet nestled in his top knot Ursa would not have taken him for a noble, per se. He’s handsome. Handsome enough to raise the heat in her cheeks, but she looks away.
She’s a promised woman. There’s no room for a roving eye anymore. Not in her future husband’s house. Not amongst her elusive future in-laws.
Their audience has been reserved until after the week of New Year festivities has abated. Until then, she has free roam of the palace grounds, and a beautiful room that has been made to suit a princess. So far, she reflects, they are treating her well. So far there is no reason to worry about what her place will be once she has been married into the fold.
But she wishes that they would get this all over with. She wishes that her parents had not deemed the New Year the appropriate time to arrive.
It is a good chance to mingle though, she knows. To charm some of the nobility, and reaffirm old alliances that her parents have cultivated over the years. Who would have known that such alliances could be put to use by way of their daughter’s advancement.
Now it will be those nobles who are grateful. Those nobles who will come to her when they need something, and plead for her to put a word in for them, a whisper of good faith; an accounting of debts.
Her tongue darts out to wet her lower lip, tasting the chalk of her lipstick where it comes off of her mouth. Ursa swallows convulsively and stops to accept ceremonial libations offered by a servant. The woman darts back through the crowd, serving the next in line of nobles who find their palms wanting.
Ursa tips the heated cherry wine into her mouth and swallows again. It warms down her throat and through her chest. She imagines that this is what it would feel like to be a fire bender.
Someone stands too close at her back. She can feel him before she sees him. The young woman turns to look and sees the handsome man from before, all dressed in stark, crisp, black. He looks down his long nose at her, his crown-gold eyes sweeping the length of her neck where it is bared by the cut of her robes. Ursa flushes, looking away briefly, embarrassed by his open stare.
She feels as though he is attempting to gouge her for her secrets.
“Hello,” he says. His voice is silk smooth. Ursa fights the need to clear her throat, and composes herself.
“Hello,” she answers smoothly in turn. He says nothing else. She feels the air between them growing thick. If he were not so handsome perhaps she would have absconded away already. As it is her tongue darts out once more and she offers him a brief smile.
“The palace is lovely. Do you suppose it is always this crowded for the New Year celebration?”
He scoffs, a burst of air through his nose, ducking his face a moment before looking out at the green expanse of the garden. Mist has gathered on a small body of water that sits at the center of the green space.
“It is always this crowded for the New Year celebration,” he tells her, “and really any other occasion. It is a miracle when it’s peaceful in the palace.”
He lives here, then. A noble with rooms? He is wearing such plain robes because he has nothing to prove, she thinks. His wealth and status speak for themselves amongst those who know him. She wonders who he must be.
“I wouldn’t know. My home is never so busy as this, even if the entire Village and surrounding nobles have come to visit,” Ursa offers for conversation.
“Did you travel far?”
“Yes. Actually this is the first time that I have ever been this far away from home.”
“A secluded life then.”
“….Not really,” Ursa answers. “There is always someone about. Someone visiting. Things to be done.”
He sniffs, as though realising that she is a country noble and suddenly losing interest. Perhaps he does. Perhaps later, when he finds that she is more noble than he could ever hope to be he will feel sorry, and frightened. Part of her wants this. The other cannot find room to care. If he is important she will come to know as much. He must be, if he can afford to be this terrible a conversationalist.
“Please excuse me.” She bows to him. “I see my mother, and she is looking for me.”
He nods at her in return, and Ursa turns, pushing through the crowd quickly to find her mother and father as she has promised.
Rina turns to her daughter with a quick gesture of her hand to come near. “Where did you get off to? Don’t get lost in the crowd. This place is so big we’d never find one another again,” she frets.
Ursa links arms with her mother, for once not grudging her mother’s worry.
The banquet hall
Her father’s arm brushes her own as they seat themselves where they are shown. It seems there is but a moment between when she is seated and when the entire court rises again. A servant announces the appearance of the Fire Lord and his two sons. Ursa doesn’t dare look up as they pass. The hem of the crown prince’s wife’s robes brushes the floor just beyond where Ursa has prostrated herself.
It’s as richly embroidered as her own. The barest hint of perfume wafts from it with the movement of her passage.
A black hem brings up the end of the procession. She straightens fluidly with the rest of the assembled, and brings her attention to the front of the room. If there is any good moment to catch a glance of her fiancé before the official meeting, then it is now.
Recognition brushes both of her faces as their eyes meet.
He looks even more disgusted than before, if that is possible.
Ursa and Ozai
The grand courtyard, May
Ozai stares straight ahead as the Fire Sage reads the rites which will bind them to one another for good. He sees the flash of gold in the man’s hands as he lowers the symbolic crowns to hover above both of their heads. He thinks of the flash of his father’s crown in the fire light as he reaches out and strikes him hard across the face for even thinking to scorn this bride that he has brought him from some spirits forsaken province in their far South.
He remembers that the first impression he’d had of his new bride had been of a poor country girl out of her element, but pretty enough. She’d been so much more beautiful than he portrait that he had not recognised her until he had looked her way at the banquet and discovered that the woman he had attempted flirting with (and failed) at the visitation of the palace by the nobility had been none other than the woman whom he had been attempting to escape for over four months.
The Fire sage sets the crowns aside and brings forth a length of crimson silk, wrapping it about their joined hands. He speaks the words, but Ozai doesn’t hear them. They’re drowned out by the pounding of his heart in his ears. The palpable fury of being made to do this is enough for him to want to set the very air around them ablaze.
Perhaps if he burns himself and his new wife to ash now he can save them both the obvious suffering that they will have to go through.
They bow their heads to the ground in tandem.
When they rise, his brother comes forward with a gilded wooden box, opening it up and handing it to a servant. She holds it steady as he reaches within and brings forth the Fire Lord’s gift to Ozai’s new bride. A heavy sunstone and garnet waist decoration that ends in the family’s emblem.
Ursa allows a servant to attach it about her waist for her. Iroh brings forth the gifts from himself and his wife. A few rings. Simple, but pretty.
Ozai closes his eyes and waits for it all to be over.
At least the food is good.
Ursa and Ozai
Their private quarters on the wedding night, May
Ozai’s petulance remains. He is determined to make their marriage difficult. She can feel it in the way that the air warms around him whenever he thinks that she is paying too much attention. In the way that he turns from her whenever she attempts to speak.
This is going to be a challenge.
Most obviously, he had not known her either when he had approached on the first day of the New Year celebrations. Though he had been…up front, he had at least seemed to be interested in her. Now his disinterest drips off of him even as he shrugs away the outermost layer of his crimson and gold ceremonial robes.
Ursa sits at the edge of the bed they are to share, her heart hammering hard in her chest. Her fingers curl into the covers.
The bed dips as Ozai sits beside her, his own hands draped over his knees as he continues to stare forward at the wall opposite them. Ursa looks sidelong at her new husband, attempting to keep her breathing even.
“This arrangement,” Ozai begins then, and she is shocked to hear her husband’s voice after so long spent together in silence, “is no doubt not ideal for either of us. I have no illusions that you want me any more than I want you. However, my father will not suffer insubordination. No matter what comes, you and I are husband and wife. You will comport yourself as such,” he informs her.
Ursa raises her eyebrows but says nothing. If it is a model wife that he wants then, in public, that is what she will give him. In private…
Hesitantly, Ursa reaches toward him, her palm closing over Ozai’s thigh. Warmth radiates off of him in waves.
He looks down stiffly at her hand. He shifts his weight and she does as well.
They move in tandem with one another for the first time, but certainly not the last.